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Visual language around me— Observing icons, symbols and indices

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A deep-dive into some common signs and symbols

Since joining a UX Design Bootcamp, I’ve become increasingly aware of the ways in which design impacts my life. Learning about iconography in design was no different. Icons and symbols I would have simply overlooked in the past, made me stop and think about what they meant, how they came about and where I might have seen them before.

Icon vs. Symbol vs. Index

Icons are pictorial representations of real-world objects. Icons are recognizable with little to no additional information.

Common web and mobile icons — Back, search, email/message, shopping cart, microphone, compass, more, done/check, heart/like, flight mode, download, notification/bell icon
Popular icons

Symbols can represent ideas, beliefs and abstract concepts. Symbols need to be learned. Religious insignia, mathematical and scientific signs are good examples of symbols.

Calculus symbols — integrals, vectors. Religious symbols — Cross, Om, Yin and Yang, Star of David
Math symbols and religious insignia

Indices are logically connected to the idea they represent. The fire icon on inflammable substances seems like a good example of an index. It represents evidence of what might happen if instructions aren’t followed.

Inflammable substance sign
Inflammable substance

Icons around me

Flatlay of a desk. Shows keyboard, cup of brown beverage, white earphones and a blank notebook
Photo by Lukas Blazek on Unsplash

Desk

11:45 a.m.

I began by looking at items on my desk, turning over gadgets and chargers, looking for any pictograms. I found these on the back of portable speakers.

On the back of portable speakers

12:00 p.m.

I found a bunch of similar icons on my laptop charger, with no idea what any of them meant.

On a laptop charger

Not sure whether they classify as icons or symbols.(Ironic, since being unsure means it’s either not an icon or a poorly designed one)At the moment, they look to me like something out of the Hogwarts school curriculum.

A quick google search revealed that the stylized “CE” stands for the French phrase “Conformité Européene” which translates to “European Conformity.” This logo is found on products that are sold in approximately 30 countries participating in the European Union marketplace. This means that these devices have been tested for the safety standards of the regions depicted. The symbols indicate certifications for safety standards.

On the back of a tablet

They seem pretty standard across electronics. Here’s a bunch of these symbols on the back of a tablet.

Conclusion: These classify as symbols since they aren’t immediately recognizable and need to be learned.

Kitchen

12:30 pm

L to R. Brand logo, a symbol for vegetarian content, icon for trash disposal

I found these on a pack of biscuits. The brand logo on the right can be classified as a symbol since it is learned and recognised. The green sign in the middle represents a vegetarian product. Now, this can be confusing, depending on where you’re from. In India, eggs are typically not considered vegetarian but dairy is. These biscuits are egg-free but contain dairy products.

I would classify this as a symbol since it isn’t immediately clear as to what the sign represents and it doesn’t pictorially represent vegetarian food.

The third, “keep your city clean” pictogram is found on almost all packaging, styled differently to fit a brand’s aesthetic. I found a couple more of these, and symbols for recycling.

Recycling and trash disposal

These can be called icons since they quite closely represent a person putting trash in a bin. The one on the gold tin seems like a more accurate representation since the grid used to depict the bin is very similar to mesh bins found in public places.

Other objects

12:50 pm

Car keys

The buttons are instantly recognizable as lock and unlock. These are definitely icons, no doubt about that.

Bluetooth speakers

Controls on Bluetooth speakers
  1. Power button: the “I” evolved from binary 1 meaning “power on” and the O meant binary 0 or power off. Eventually, these symbols merged into the power symbol that is seen on most devices today.
  2. Volume controls: I think these are somewhere between icons and indices since “+” doesn’t mean volume, but it does mean “adding something” in this context that would mean adding sound or increasing the intensity of sound.
  3. Play/Pause: Although universally acknowledged now, these were learned over the years, there is no visual correlation between a triangle and playing media content. Some theories say that the play symbol is from the 1960s when audiovisual was still reel-to-reel. It speculates that the triangle actually was an arrow, indicating which way the reel went.
  4. Bluetooth: This pictograph originated from two Runic symbols for “h” and “b” — the initials of Harald Bluetooth, a king of Denmark and Norway

The Bluetooth wireless specification design was named after the king in 1997, based on an analogy that Bluetooth technology would unite devices the way Harald Bluetooth united the tribes of Denmark into a single kingdom.

Tube of hand cream

L to R. Best used within 12 months of opening, the Green Dot, 1 for the planet

1:00 p.m.

The image on the far right indicates that this product is best when used within 12 months of opening the seal. Although not 100% obvious at first glance, it’s easily understood when in context. This is somewhere between icon and symbol but mostly an icon.

The one in the middle is called The Green Dot. It shows that the company displaying the symbol made a financial contribution to recycling.

One Percent for the Planet is an international organization whose members contribute at least one per cent of their annual sales to environmental causes.

It’s good to know that there are several organizations working towards a more sustainable future, but it can be hard to identify the plethora of symbols.

USB

USB

1:30 p.m.

And finally, the one nobody plugs in right on the first try. The USB symbol

is said to be derived from Neptune’s trident, loosely representing “power”. The shapes at the end of each line supposedly indicate universal connectivity. Fascinating, isn't it? However, it doesn’t do much to actually tell the user what the device does, without prior knowledge. Due to its lack of direct visual correlation, I’d classify this as a symbol.

This was an interesting exercise, and here is my rendition on paper, of some of the pictograms I explored today.


Visual language around me— Observing icons, symbols and indices was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.